How Airlines Work

By: Kevin Bonsor

Anatomy of an Airline

Line personnel, such as reservation clerks, is the largest group of airline employees.
Photo courtesy Denver International Airport

While the operations of each specific airline may differ, there is a certain amount of similarity among each airline's structure. An airline's most important assets are its airplanes and its people. An airline can have the best planes in the world, but without the employees, an airline can't do anything.

Airlines are most often represented in public by those employees who have the most contact with travelers, such as pilots and flight attendants, but there are many more airline employees working behind the scenes. Larger airlines may employ more people, but the employee categories are generally the same no matter what the size of the airline.


Here are the various types of employees in an airline:

  • Line personnel - This is the group of people you most often see during a flight, and they form 85 percent of an airline's labor force. Line personnel include pilots and flight attendants, reservation clerks, airport check-in and gate personnel and security guards.
  • Operations - If line personnel form the heart of an airline, operations keeps it's blood pumping. These people are responsible for scheduling aircraft and flight crews to man the aircraft. Operations personnel maintain guidelines to meet FAA standards, and they train the flight crews. Included in operations are the dispatchers, who track all of the airline's flights.
  • Maintenance - Airplanes are multi-million-dollar vehicles that must be maintained in order to prevent the airline from losing money. Aircraft only make money for the airline when they are transporting passengers. About 10 percent of an airline's work force is dedicated to aircraft maintenance.
  • Sales and marketing - If you wonder who sets your prices, you can usually find them in the sales and marketing divisions of an airline. These people are also tasked with advertising, cargo sales, reservations, customer service and food service.

In addition to the personnel listed above, who make up the majority of airline's payroll, the airline also employs specialists and subcontractors to perform particular duties. This specialized staff includes people like lawyers, accountants, and employee- and public-relations specialists. It is their role to support the work of line personnel. Typically, these people work at the airline's headquarters. Subcontractors are people whom airlines farm work out to, and may perform the such tasks as cleaning, fueling, security, food services and sometimes maintenance. To learn more about airline employees, see How Airline Crews Work.